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One Big Question: Can Kevin Plawecki find some better contact quality?

Or, phrased differently, any quality contact?

MLB: Spring Training-Boston Red Sox at Pittsburgh Pirates Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Kevin Plawecki.

The Question: Can Kevin Plawecki hit for more consistent contact?

One of the most intriguing position battles going on at Red Sox camp right now is behind the plate. That’s been an interesting spot for the team since the start of the offseason, as it started with Sandy Léon, who was then traded, and his vacancy was eventually filled by the man he replaced in Cleveland, Kevin Plawecki. Since Plawecki got a major-league deal, it was assumed that he was 100 percent the backup catcher. And then Jonathan Lucroy came in on a minor-league deal and things changed. At this point, the latter might even be considered the favorite. That seems crazy to me on its surface, but that’s a conversation for another day. Plawecki is still the guy on the 40-man roster, and thus the guy who gets covered in this series.

On paper, the former Cleveland and New York (Mets) backstop is sort of your prototypical backup catcher. There are real questions with the bat, but he has developed into a very stable defensive player. That at least provides a floor. Of course, Red Sox have some experience with this profile over the last few years with León, and it’s not always fun! I will just point out, though, that Plawecki does have some reason to think he can be better with the bat.

Last year was undoubtedly a disaster at the plate last year with Cleveland, as he finished the year hitting .222/.287/.342 for a 68 wRC+. In other words, he was 32 percent worse than the league-average hitter. However, in his previous two seasons he finished with wRC+’s of 93 and 107, and he was consistently productive back in his minor-league days in the middle of last decade. This is not to tell you that Plawecki is some kind of hidden gem of a hitter or anything, but rather to just remind people that this is not Sandy León.

As far as trying to squeeze a little more out of the bat compared to last season, if we’re being honest the walk rate is probably the place to start. After walking at least ten percent of the time in each of the last three years, that rate fell below seven percent in 2019. I’m not going to spend too much time on that, though, because the plate discipline numbers don’t tell a particularly intriguing story. Plawecki actually had a career-low chase rate (per Baseball Savant) and say the same number of strikes he had seen the year before. This seemingly came down to swinging early in counts a little more, making a little more contact, and a little bit of small sample weirdness.

What I was more interested in with Plawecki’s numbers was what happened when he made that contact. The walk rate was a big drain on his overall production, but so was his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) falling from his previous two seasons despite MLB using a golf ball for all of 2019. It also wasn’t super helpful that his batting average on balls in play was down at .256, although that’s not far off from his career norms. Which brings me to his batted ball profile, which kind of stinks!

It’s no secret that launch angle is become the hot thing around baseball, particularly as long as the juiced ball sticks around. More balls hit in the air leads to more damage which leads to more runs. The thing is, launch angle can be deceiving. Plawecki did increase his average launch angle fairly significantly, from 10.9 degrees in 2018 (a career-high at the time) to 15.7 degrees last year. The thing is, it wasn’t in the way we generally think of launch angle. According to Baseball Savant, his fly ball and line drive rates actually fell from 2018, albeit at an insignificant rate of less than a single percentage point. The increase was because he was popping balls up at a 14 percent rate, five percentage points higher than his previous career high. It probably goes without saying that popping the ball up isn’t going to lead to hits or power.

What’s most concerning about all of this is that Plawecki was, to put it simply, easy to beat. Most pitchers want to throw as many fastballs as they can get away with because it’s the easiest pitch to locate. If you know a guy can’t hit your fastball, there’s little reason to move away from it. Plawecki was not good against fastballs in 2019. By FanGraphs’ pitch value metric, the catcher was in the bottom 14 percent of baseball against fastballs on a rate basis. According to Baseball Savant, he had an expected wOBA of .306 against the pitch and an actual wOBA of .322. For context, José Iglesias finished last season with a .306 wOBA and Evan Longoria had a .322 mark. Remember, Plawecki’s numbers came against the pitch that should be the easiest to hit.

It wasn’t just fastballs in general that Plawecki struggled to hit well, either. What he really couldn’t do was handle heat up in the zone. Below you’ll see a comparison of his average exit velocity in different areas of the zone in 2018 and 2019. You’ll notice the numbers fall off up in the zone and in on the hands, both of which are zones where pitchers throw a bunch of fastballs and where batters can be prone to popping it up when they’re in a bad way.

2018; via Baseball Savant
2019; via Baseball Savant

The truth is that we’re talking about a player who, in an ideal world, only gets about 100-200 plate appearances in a season. That means both the impact is not all that big and also that the performance is opened up to wild fluctuations. Plawecki is probably going to walk more than he did last year, and that alone gets him to a nearly acceptable level. If he can start hitting fastballs with any modicum of success, he should be able to get up to the 80-85 wRC+ range. Not exciting, but perfectly cromulent for a backup catcher. Whether it’s enough to actually win that job, well, that’s a story for another day.